Square Pegs & Round Holes
Titus couldn’t do much more to stop the ceaseless flickering of his college dorm room’s faulty over-head light, so he opted to leave it off for the time-being. Perhaps he’d try to deal with it again later, but at the moment it wasn’t something very high up on his priority list. He already tried fixing the bulb the day before, but the old cooked glass burned the tips of his fingers when he tried to swivel it into its socket. He nearly fell off the chair he had been standing on.
So for now, he just laid there with the darkness, realizing oddly for the first time that he felt restricted, almost forcibly tied down by his bedsheets. Then, in an outward display of aggression and confusion, Titus violently thrashed his feet around, in hopes to free himself from his suddenly confining quilt comforter. At this point however, the covers had been so firmly wound across his body that the thrashing did nothing but make him hotter and altogether more incensed.
Fuck me. Sitting up now, he reached for his phone, his weary eyes, narrowing like slits from the phone’s brightness, couldn’t make out a thing. He felt around the bed for his glasses, large horn-rims like Atticus Finch’s. He squinted at the rest of the room and felt helpless. Getting up he slowly began to see something over on the table by the door that they put the groceries on occaisionally.
Oh yea, those girls. Grabbing them, he was forced to painfully run through the memory from earlier in the day, when those girls from down the hall showed up earlier today and asked him if he had any sugar.
It was a basic, innocent question. He actually did have sugar, a big pink Tupperware of it; something his mother gave to him just in case he ever wanted to bake in the kitchenette downstairs with friends. Titus assured her that if these guys don’t bake, and he wouldn’t be spending his free-time doing that. He kept the sugar anyway. It was in his bottom drawer. He wouldn’t tell anyone about it.
Back inthe moment at the door, Titus — who insecurely realized he probably looked like shit— yanked his glasses off, fussed with his hair, and puffed up his chest a bit, having just enough time to scoff at the girls’ question before the silence had swallowed him up whole.
“Psh, me? Sugar? No, sorry guys, none here” he convinced them somewhat nervously, flexing his left triceps intentionally as he leaned against the door. The girls politely thanked him with blank smiles, and left him standing there, deflated. Why didn’t you just give them the sugar, you idiot?
The thing was, Titus envisioned a future for himself in which he wasn’t just the neighbor with the hook-up for low-cal sweetener. He so desperately yearned to be wanted for more. But thanks to his smooth charm, he could forever be forgotten as the neighbor who couldn’t help them out that one time–who never gave them anything of value, not even a memory.
He longingly watched the two girls scurry off and was left wallowing in his own ineptitude by the doorway. Suddenly, he felt so vulnerable, even weak. In that moment, the door unhinged itself, nudging Titus back into the darkness of his empty room and plopped back on his bed for more comfortable wallowing.
That’s when he forgot his glasses on the doorway table.
Back in the present, just hours later, he had nothing to do. So he checked his phone. Most of his unread messages were links to Times articles from his mom about declining graduate school admission rates or the recent importance of studying S.T.E.M. fields in school.
He didn’t care.
Rather than read them, because how nerdy that would have been, he sent back a message saying, “Interesting, thanks for sharing!” He read a paragraph and a half of that first one just to get the jist in case she got nosy with a follow-up text.
Titus had no real interest in paying attention to any of these other notifications either. He scrolled through his messages and clicked into a conversation he’d been having with a short-haired Sociology major he met at that Beta Rho party last Thursday. The two of them yelled their life stories at each other over the boom of the Calvin Harris, and at the end of about fifteen harmless minutes, she called Titus a cutie, giving him a kiss on the cheek, and her number.
She said if he texted her, she would go out with him again next week.
It was a memory, however brief and fleeting, that gave Titus hope. He went home that night with all kinds of ideas for the future: more parties, more conversations, more popularity… But now, he stared down at this text conversation, and he noticed that she hadn’t answered him since last Thursday. He chewed at the lose strands of dead skin around his fingernails and debated whether or not it sounded desperate to ask her a third time if she was planning on going out tonight.
All of this — the Wednesday parties in off-campus basements, the strobe lights, damp streamers, and ply wood dance floors, the girls, the guys, the eyes, the eyes everywhere — all of this had been so new to him. Alcohol was new. Sex was so new, it hadn’t even been unpackaged out of its box yet…The condition of being so hopelessly unfamiliar to the culture around him, the very source of this feeling of newness, was new. Everyone around Titus seemed to love it, but he was still deciding.
Over these past few weeks, his roommate Davis, the long-haired, Division-1 soccer star from Reno, had been showing him what it meant to have a good time. The first night of the semester, Titus latched on to Davis like a barnacle on a ship. Everywhere he went, Titus went too, bouncing around to exclusive fraternities that he never would have dreamed of seeing had he not been a faceless friend of a well-liked jock. That night, Titus learned what he wanted from college: he wanted to belong.
Davis belonged. Titus watched him closely that night and realized that Davis always had friends around him in hoards. Davis would dance along to some 70’s disco song that he’s never heard before — his long hair whipping, his muscular arms flailing, his head turning from side to side, showing off his chiseled jawline — and he looked like a star. Everyone around him wanted to either be him or be with him. He wanted to dance like Davis; to just stand up on the risers by the dancefloor and absolutely lose it. But he was scared to think that he — with his squatty build and chubby face — may not be noticed at all. Or worse, everyone would notice. They would notice how unmistakably new this had all been to him. So Titus spent that night standing around the fringe of the dance-floor with a full cup in one hand, and his phone in the other, pretending to seem busy if anyone was looking.
Back in his room, Titus was waiting. He was waiting for his light to get fixed. He was waiting for his neighbors to knock on his door again. He was waiting for a text back. He tried so hard to engineer all of these situations, but he was left just waiting. And it felt strange. It felt wrong. It was times like these when Titus felt like he had no control over his life. So he would take to the streets tonight — alone if he had to — and he would try to take hold of his life. Tonight he would try to be that man he never was. He leapt out of bed to get ready.
By the time all was said and done, parties were beginning off-campus. He had taken more time to comb his hair than he had spent on his calculus problem set due tomorrow.
He didn’t care.
It was nippy out, the cool breeze of autumn gently warning the East coast that there was limited time left before the cold came.
But Titus walked down East Fifth Street without a coat.
No one wore coats to parties.
His teeth would have been chattering relentlessly had he not focused all of his energy on keeping his mouth shut. If you really looked at him you could probably see his chin bouncing.
The tips of his ears were cold too, but he couldn’t think of any way to make them warmer without looking like an idiot. So they turned a rosy red.
Luckily, he was just a block away from the house.
He had been to this house before, but that was when he was with Davis. Now, alone and cold, Titus mustered up all the confidence he could. He greeted the two young guys standing out there like unconventional bouncers. “Sup guys,” he said, seeming natural. The men, brothers of the house, one thin and white, the other thick and black, stood out there so that they could stop strangers like Titus from just walking in as they pleased. It seemed they had found someone they could fuck with. They would make Titus prove his worth.
“Tell me a racist joke,” the white one said, straight-faced. Ok, they’re just going to get right to it.
Titus laughed somewhat nervously, as he broke eye contact with the black one and uneasily readjusted his stance to seem taller. He was still significantly shorter than both of them.
“You want a joke?” Titus asked, still trying to buy some time. Whenever he was put under pressure, Titus cracked. He wasn’t even prepared to tell them a knock-knock joke, let alone an offensive one that might trigger a fight before it triggered any laughs.
“He said he wanted a racist joke,” the black one said now stepping up with his arms folded over a very puffed out chest. The two of them still had such straight faces on, Titus was so overwhelmingly confused at the situation. They had trapped him. “Tick-tock...”
Titus couldn’t think of a clever response. He couldn’t think period. He knew he needed to show them that he was willing to do something unexpected or absurd if he was going to get their attention, but he froze up.
“Look guys,” half trying to reason with them and half trying to buy some time. He gulped. In that moment he realized how much he hated his own voice. He cleared his throat. “I can give you guys some money- you know…to pay for the booze.”
The two men laughed out loud — their serious faces breaking under the pitiful desperation of what seemed like a serious suggestion.
“What you can give us,” one of them said, now bending down to eye-level, “is a lap around the block.”
Titus hadn’t wanted to give up just yet, but he realized any extra second spent here could be a second that he makes another wrong move. He put his wallet away and turned around, only to see that a crowd of eight or nine girls, all dressed in strapless tops that covered almost nothing, watching him. Some of them were laughing. Putting one foot in front of the other, Titus just bolted.
“That’s right pussy, run away” he heard one guy say.
“You mean nothing!”
By the time Titus reached the freshman dorms, his face was cold from the wind. And the tears. He swiped himself into the building and he ran up to his room the long way — trying to avoid the group of kids playing pool in the lounge. He stopped himself at the door.
He knew wasn’t going to get into that party. Why had he felt so hurt then?
Opening the door, his shirt was already coming off in a rage. It was the one his mom got him to wear to nice events and dinners. He threw it against the wall. He collapsed on the floor.
He would lay there, thinking for some time, staring up at that broken, flickering light.
When will my life ever be good enough?
In that moment, Davis stumbled in through the door. It kind of scared Titus, but he tried to play if off. “Hey, you’re home.”
“Not f — not for long,” he slurred, sounding only moderately drunk by his own standards. “I just need this,” he said, stumbling over to his cluttered desk, in pursuit for something.
He pushed aside crumpled papers, old plastic plates, and Easy-Mac containers until he burst out with an excited “A-ha.” It was a single condom.
Dropping it into the breast pocket of his half unbuttoned shirt, he flung himself around to the door. It wasn’t until he had his hand on the handle that he paused for a second and looked up.
He turned around to Titus, who was watching him intently the entire time. “Want me to fix this light for you?” he asked.
“It’s been bothering me for days, yes, yes please.” How had it not bothered him?
He watched Davis remove the fixture and look at the bulb. He was tall enough he didn’t need a chair to stand on. After about three seconds of looking, Davis encouragingly blurted out “Well, there’s the fucking problem!” as he took the bulb in his hand now and started jiggling it up and down. Titus was watching Davis closely, but he had no idea what the problem was or how shaking it violently, with no apparent technique, was ever going to fix it. He didn’t want to ask. That’s when Davis looked over at him with a soft, reassuring smile. After about seven more seconds, Davis took the bulb and carelessly screwed it into the socket, his fingers cupping the hot glass without any indication of difficulty or hassle. All-at-once, the bulb emitted steady, bright light. “Voila!” he burped, “It’s that easy man.” And just like that, he and his condom were gone.
“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” said Titus, now to an empty room. “Maybe it’s just that easy.”